Let’s stop pretending the Liberal Party believes in free speech

You'd need a heart of stone not to laugh at right-wing think-tanker Tim Wilson becoming a Human Rights Commissioner. Whatever the merits of his appointment, it’s an ace piece of industrial strength trolling by George Brandis, parachuting a culture warrior right behind enemy lines like that. As Twitter outrage reached DEFCON 1, you could almost write the Australian editorial yourself. “Noisy echo chamber… the squeals of the left… bien pensant… soy latte”... etc. But amid all the good times, there was a danger of the real punchline being lost. Because the midlife crisis-style reinvention of the Coalition as the standard bearer for ‘freedom of speech’ really does take the biscuit.

After all, the Liberal Party has spent almost 70 years as the political arm of the wowser movement, in a country so purse-lipped and censorious we used to ban films featuring topless men. That’s not a dead legacy of fuddy-duddyism either. When the Howard government was banning websites discussing euthanasia, or Baise Moi, or introducing sedition laws, most of the Voltaire fans among their number were silent. That’s not a surprise – until now, the Liberals have made zero effort to nourish the nation’s stunted legislative or cultural protections for free speech. If the Puritans are suddenly putting on libertarian party hats, we should be suspicious.

Perhaps this is a genuine new direction. After all, George Brandis did oppose the sedition laws back when he was still a backbencher. Some of his criticisms of the Human Right Commission are legitimate. They have fumbled on the issue of free speech, and Section 18C is hardly a model of liberal legislation. It’s also true that Tim Wilson, Chris Berg and their Institute for Public Affairs cohorts have done some lonely, creditable work on the frontline of civil liberties. 

It would be more convincing if the Coalition freedom train didn’t derail so easily: it only has to run into a confused tabloid editorial, especially one about a high-profile crime, and that enthusiasm for “ancient liberties” disappears. Just savour this zig-zag from consecutive paragraphs in The Australian:

“The changes [to 18C] are part of a series of initiatives intended to reverse what Senator Brandis described as the previous Labor government’s attacks on traditional freedoms. Senator Brandis has also declared his support for Queensland’s legislative crackdown on bikie gangs and revealed the scheme had won near-universal support at the last meeting of the nation’s attorneys-general.”

Got it? So attacks on freedom through 18C are intolerable. But a bill of attainder so repressive it contains a five year mandatory sentence for refusing to answer police questions is something to be praised. As an affront to liberty these bikie laws dwarf the piddling penalties of the Bolt law – anyone convicted under them will be housed in a special prison and kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. The IPA itself has pointed out that this legislation is a multi-barrelled assault on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, the right to silence, and the presumption of innocence. But it takes nothing more than some incompetent policing for Brandis and his allies to take these baubles away.

And Joh Town isn’t an outlier here. In the past two years alone, Coalition politicians have ended the right to silence in New South Wales, introduced on-the-spot anti-swearing legislation in Victoria, moved to ban secondary boycotts federally, drafted legislation to imprison internet trolls, passed ‘move on’ laws against union protestors, and personally intervened to ensure the artist Paul Yore was charged with child pornography offences. That’s before we even mention the diabolical ‘rights’ regime governing asylum seekers, or their personal proclivity for suing others for defamation, or the ever-encroaching restriction on what bureaucrats or the government-funded can say in public. In power the Liberals have chilled, attacked, and eaten away at freedom of speech and its attendant rights – in other words, they’ve done what they always do.

It’s worrying when Tim Wilson says he will “advance the Government’s freedom agenda”, because it doesn’t have one. Not one that’s applied as a broad principle anyway, and that’s explicit – Brandis’ freedom audit of Australian law will “specifically focus on commercial and corporate regulation, environmental regulation and workplace relations.” The principle mouthed is universal, but the passion is for corporate personhood and Andrew Bolt.

Jonathan Swift once wrote that “laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.” The Coalition aren’t angry that our freedom is musty with these legal cobwebs. After all, they put many of them there in the first place. They’re angry one of them caught a wasp.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 

@rgcooke

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